Mama Qadeer — Illustration by Sana Nasir
Mama Qadeer — Illustration by Sana Nasir

It is never a refined image, but a photograph of varying quality. It is often a newspaper photograph of a man or woman on a street, outside a gate, on a footpath. The face of the man or the woman in that picture is often stoic but sad. It is a weary face, a face clinging on to hope, a face with slightly tense eyelids struggling to push back undisciplined tears.

And the feature that stands out in that photograph is always the man’s or the woman’s hands. Hands often tell us more than lips do. The hands in the photograph that haunts me are never the soft, plump or manicured hands of the rich and the powerful. The hands in this photograph are often the wiry, grainy hands of a farmer or an ironsmith — hands that carry marks accrued by years of knocking on doors that never opened.

In this photograph that haunts me, those hands are firmly but carefully holding a second photograph — a framed photograph of a son, a husband or a father. It is that smaller framed photograph within the photograph that has brought the person holding it onto the street, outside a gate, on a footpath. In the moment the news photographers raise their cameras, he or she holds the framed photograph of the son, the husband or the father at a certain tilted angle he or she hopes will give it maximum exposure in the newspaper — as if to say, it is he, the one in the framed photograph, that they need to see, not me.

For the man in the framed photograph that I am holding, is my son, my father, my husband that your security forces took away. For he is the one I am waiting for every dawn, every dusk. This framed photograph I am holding did not belong here in my hands on a footpath, outside a gate, on a street. It was meant to be casually placed on a windowsill, on a table, on a bookshelf in our home. And the man in the photograph was meant to walk in and out of the house as you do, go to his college, go to a boring, exciting, lucrative or badly-paying job. The man in the framed photograph was supposed to be home, not in the netherworld of unknowns, in a grey world between the living and the dead that the people taken away by security forces inhabit.

I saw that photograph first in an essay about disappearances in Argentina. An old woman in a headscarf and a wrinkled face, a few locks of her hair ruffled by the wind, held the second, framed photograph within the photograph. And there were words whose burden her country couldn’t bear: Ninos Desaparecidos (the child who disappeared). I saw that photograph reappear in my own home, in Kashmir, in the mid-1990s when Indian troops took young Kashmiri boys away into the dark nights of torture, when the boys never returned. I saw the framed photograph precisely in the hands of a mother. In the hands of Parveena Ahangar, whose 17-year-old son, Javed Ahangar, a speech-impaired boy, was taken away by Indian troops on a cold January night in 1990. 8,000 boys and men disappeared in the coming years. Parveena Ahangar appeared in photograph after photograph, always holding the framed photograph of her disappeared son, always seeking an answer. It is a question India cannot bear despite her massive military, large economy and biggest democracy. The moral burden of that second photograph is heavier than any nationalism, any story you tell yourselves about your successes and failures.

No society can live in peace, live with itself, if it turns away from its Mama Qadeers, who are still holding onto those photographs.

I saw that second framed photograph again in newspapers in Pakistan earlier in the year. It was the photograph of Mama Qadeer holding a framed photograph of his disappeared son. Qadeer, a small man, with a weather-beaten face, rough, wiry hands, gently held the framed photograph of his missing son. I stared for a long while at the framed photograph of his son. The photographs of the disappeared always seem to be those awkward, formal photographs taken in a small-town photographer’s studio. Qadeer’s son has a fairer face, a robust moustache and bushy eyelashes. He is wearing a dark suit, a shirt, and a necktie. His square, swarthy face is stiff in a passport photo expression.

The mutilated corpse of Qadeer’s son, Jalil Reki, was found in Balochistan in 2009. Qadeer’s struggle and insistence acquire a greater moral force as he seeks to find out the whereabouts of the missing Baloch boys and men beyond his family. The missing Baloch who reside in the framed photographs need to return home. No society can live in peace, live with itself, if it turns away from its Mama Qadeers, who are still holding onto those photographs.

Nine years ago, outside a social science institute in New Delhi, where a seminar on disappearances in Kashmir was being organised, a mother from a village in Kupwara told me, “Even the moon would not see my face but the search for my missing son has brought me to the doors and streets of this city.” She, too, was clutching a framed photograph. And that is why the 72-year-old Qadeer walked, with the families of Balochistan’s disappeared, hundreds of miles from their homes to Islamabad. That is why they held onto the framed photographs of their disappeared family members at the press club in Karachi, on a street in Islamabad. Only a parent, a child, a spouse can carry that photograph. You cannot, your military, your politicians, your judges cannot carry the burden of that second framed photograph. And it lies on your conscience, much like the small coffins of the beloved, massacred children of Peshawar.

This story was originally published in Herald magazine's Annual 2015 issue

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